Wednesday, August 21, 2013

RESEARCHING THE ALMANAC TRIAL: THE BEARDSTOWN COURTHOUSE

One thing a prosecutor always wants to do when investigating a murder is to visit the scene of the crime. When I went to Illinois researching my book on the Almanac Trial, I couldn't find the scene of the crime, but I did find the scene of the trial.

When Lane (my wife) and I arrived at the courthouse in Beardstown, it was a Saturday and the courthouse was closed. I was disappointed that I wasn't going to be able to see the courtroom, because we had a busy schedule during our time in Illinois and weren't going to be able to come back. I decided that I could at least take a photo of the plaque that the Beardstown Woman's Club had put on the front of the building.

 
Plaque commemorating the Almanac Trial
 
The plaque reads "The Beardstown Woman's Club erected this Tablet February 12, 1909, In Memory of ABRAHAM LINCOLN Who for the sake of a mother in distress, cleared her son, Duff Armstrong, of the charge of murder, in this Hall of Justice, May 7, 1858."

We were getting ready to leave when Lane suggested that she take  photo of me standing at the front door of the courthouse.


 
Me in Front of the Cass County Courthouse


I am a compulsive reader, so while I was at the front door, I read the signs taped inside the window. I learned that the courthouse museum was open on Saturdays, but that we were just too early. We waited for the museum to open. Around 9:00 a gentleman by the name of Corky Kinstle soon arrived to unlock the door and we followed him in. He gave us the full tour of all the exhibits in the museum, most of which dealt with the history of Beardstown. It was interesting, but I couldn't help becoming impatient to go ahead and get upstairs to the courtroom.

Then he took us down and showed us the jail, which was a dungeon-like room at the rear of the courthouse. It was here that Duff Armstrong was housed from November 1857 until May 1858 awaiting trial. Mr. Kinstle told us that Armstrong didn't spend all his time in the cage. The sheriff granted him trustee status and let him out to go work doing odd jobs at the sheriff's home. It is likely that this helped Duff get acquitted. The people of Beardstown, twelve of whom would eventually serve on Duff's jury, likely became familiar with him and decided that he couldn't be that desperate a criminal if the sheriff was letting him out to do odd jobs.

Mr. Kinstle said that an effigy of Duff was on the bed in his cell. The dummy of Duff had been there for many years, and scores, if not hundreds, of visitors to the museum had gotten their pictures taken with "Duff." I declined to get my picture taken with him, but I did take a photograph of him lying on his jail bunk bed.

 
The Beardstown Courthouse Jail Cells

As you can see from the photograph, accommodations for prisoners have improved in the last century and a half. It is said that while Duff was in jail there was also a school teacher serving time there, and that he taught Duff to read. After looking at the jail, our guide decided it was time for us to go upstairs and see what they had up there.

One room of the upstairs was called the "Black Museum," which made me think of Scotland Yard's Black Museum in London. The Beardstown Black Museum was nothing like the one in London. London's Black Museum, which is not open to the public, contains evidentiary exhibits from various criminal investigations over the years. Back in the heyday of old time radio, Orson Welles narrated a radio show called "The Black Museum." At the beginning of each episode, Welles would describe one of the evidentiary exhibits from the museum, and then you would  hear a dramatization of the case in which the exhibit was collected. The Beardstown Black Museum was a collection of antiques and curios donated by a man named Black. Outside the courtroom and the jail cell, this was my favorite part of the courthouse museum. Mr. Black collected antique firearms, and the display of guns was quite interesting.


After looking at the Black Museum, it was time to go into the courtroom itself.
Before we go into the courtroom, let's take one more look at the outside of the courthouse. In addition to the photographs that I took of the courthouse, I found two others which showed the courthouse in earlier years. One photo comes from an article written by J.N. Gridley in 1910. The other comes from the Library of Congress, and was taken in 1937.Here are the three pictures:





The structure which looks like a cupola in the two earlier photos is not a part of the courthouse. It is on the fa├žade of a building behind it. From 1910 to at least 1937 the building served as the Beardstown city hall. The most visible changes are: (1) The elimination of the chimneys sometime between 1910 and 1937. (2) The paving of the road in front of the courthouse, from dirt to brick to asphalt. (3) The buildings surrounding the courthouse. (4) The flagpole, which appears to be a wooden shaft with a square cross section in the 1910 & 2013 photos, but is a typical flagpole in the 1937 photo. Apparently the flagpole was changed to make it more like the one over the courthouse when Lincoln litigated the Almanac Trial.

If Lincoln were to see the courthouse today, he would probably have no trouble recognizing it as the courthouse where he defended Duff Armstrong, but he would probably recognize little else about the building's surroundings.